Jack's tarnished tuppence

Observations on Scotland

For more than a century, Scotland nurtured migratory leaders. "Scots politician" was synonymous with "success", but success did not signify a politician prepared to remain in Scotland. Devolution was supposed to change this by giving the country's leaders a reason to stay at home, but for the First Minister, Jack McConnell, it has not worked.

When he is not visiting Kirsty Wark's villa in Majorca, he loves to travel further afield. Last month, he excelled himself with a state visit to Malawi. He beamed as the vice-president welcomed him at Kam-uzu Airport in Lilongwe. His rapture increased as jogging soldiers formed a guard of honour for the drive into the city.

For a politician whose remit excludes foreign affairs, McConnell looked like a man on an ego trip, but he denied it. It's not just because he wants to swan around like a real head of government. He indicated his intentions in March when he said the Scottish Executive intended to "play its part in tackling global inequality". The Malawi trip showed us what that means.

Turning a blind eye to the Department for International Development and its existing aid package for Malawi, the First Minister promised a separate Scottish aid programme. The scale is risible: DfID will spend £55m on health workers for Malawi; the Scottish Executive will spend £120,000. But McConnell also pledged £9m over three years, and will supplement that with a "Scottish national fundraising initiative" for Malawi.

Scots nationalists are enraptured, but progressives should not be. The issue is not whether Malawi needs aid. What matters is McConnell's profligacy and the threat it poses to charities and NGOs with far greater experience of these things.

Charity fundraisers have already complained that his use of executive influence to promote a particular cause will divert funds from causes such as the Disasters Emergency Committee's appeal in aid of the Indian Ocean tsunami victims.

McConnell's next problem is that he needs to raise overseas aid money by public appeal. Without charitable donations, every penny he spends in Malawi will come from the UK Treasury as part of the Scottish Executive block grant, allocated by the House of Commons exclusively for spending on devolved responsibilities. McConnell's initial £9m is all scheduled to come from that source.

Worse, running costs for the Malawi scheme will be high, and existing DfID work will be duplicated. To spend the same sum under the existing UK programme would cost less and achieve more. The suspicion is growing in Labour circles that McConnell's real objective is to expand the role of the Scottish Executive into policy areas from which it is excluded by the Scotland Act. Malawi is just an excuse.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, G8 protest: how far should you go?